Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins was fantastic last year as a sophomore for the National Champion Clemson Tigers. Interestingly, it could get better this year since he played out of position last year. Wilkins played outside as a defensive end (5-technique) and he put together a very productive season, registering 48 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also recovered a fumble and blocked a field goal.
I’m looking at him as an interior defensive tackle (3-technique) to evaluate his traits to see where he fits into the 2018 NFL draft. Wilkins is eligible as he is three years removed from high school. Wilkins is 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds and has the right physical profile to play inside because he has the bulk to anchor and hold up at the point of attack. He also can use his quickness to beat guards and make plays in the backfield.
However, because he played outside last year, we need to find something to go off in terms of wanting to see him lined up closer to the ball. In order to see him as a true tackle, we have to go back to the 2015 season when he was a freshman. That brings up issues as it is tough to jump from high school into the ACC at a school like Clemson and play up to the level of the college athletes that have been in these programs for years.
Wilkins was up and down in 2015, but that’s what we have to go with if we want to see him lined up as a defensive tackle, so that’s what we’re going with. We’re going to have to blend what he did as a freshman with what he did as a sophomore and we’re going to be open to whatever may come out the other side.
There is no arguing about his level of play last year lined up outside. He was effective with his ability to press the outside shoulder of the tackle and turn the corner to pressure the quarterback. Wilkins flattens very well through contact and this means he takes fewer steps to get to his target.
This brings up a few questions. First, because he is so much bigger than the average defensive end, does Wilkins benefit from his sheer mass in running through offensive tackles? It certainly looks like he has an easier time working through contact. He won’t be playing that position at the NFL level so in that regard it doesn’t matter because again, we’re looking at traits.
The second question has to do with Wilkins’ ability to play through the physicality he will go up against inside. When watching him on the hoof, he looks quick enough and can turn the corner well, and he closes quickly, but that’s him on the move out in space and he won’t have that kind of room working along the interior of a defensive line.
He’ll also be up against interior offensive linemen and they are much more likely to be able to anchor and fend him off from a physical standpoint. However, even lined up outside, you can see the traits he brings to the table.
Speaking of traits, there are very specific things we want to see from a defensive tackle. When we are thinking about athletic ability, we are looking at overall athleticism, agility, and explosiveness. Wilkins is a gifted athlete for a big man and he possesses a nice blend of athletic tools which should help him succeed going forward.
Defensive tackles need to play the run first. Against the run, Wilkins has good instincts and does a nice job of finding the ball. When watching him as a freshman in 2015, you can see that when he plays with good pad level and power, he tends to do well but that wasn’t always the case, but again, he was a freshman. Wilkins has strong hands and does a nice job of disengaging to pursue the ball.
He continued his strong play against the run last year as a defensive end. Wilkins does a nice job of shedding
blockers to find and pursue the ball, and he looked like a player that gave offenses a very hard time.
The next trait comprises a group of skills that will either get Wilkins drafted very early (top-10 overall as one of the best prospects at his position) or will get him pushed into a tier of players that will get drafted on day two. This is all about the pass rush, and whether Wilkins can make an impact on the passing game from the defensive interior.
The traits involved here are his pass rush ability, the kind of finishing moves he displays, his initial quickness to defeat blocks quickly and his ability to shoot gaps to defeat plays before they start.
When we talk about initial quickness, we want to see “Aaron Donald” type quickness. That’s as good as it gets, but it is extremely rare. Wilkins has a strong, quick first step and closes in a flash. He looks like the kind of player that has improved his quickness from his first year to his second, and hopefully, we’ll see more during his junior season.
When I say improved his quickness, I see a bit of a slimmed down version from his freshman season and it has given him a little more lateral mobility that he had the season before. He’ll need those skills going forward.
Wilkins definitely can shoot gaps and defeat blocks inside, and he’s bigger than the small/quick types so he plays a different game than those guys do. He is going to win through a combination of raw power, first-step quickness, and lateral agility. If Wilkins can show this gap shooting ability and a first-step quickness that guards struggle with, he’ll have every chance to go very early in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft.
One thing that stands out is that he has a knack for timing his jump when his pass rush is stopped and batting passes to the ground. You can see him read the eyes of the quarterback and knock the ball out of the air. It’s a huge play, much like a broken up pass.
There are a few things I’m looking for from Wilkins during his junior season. I want to see him lined up inside and I want to see him physically dominate the player across from him. I want to see that first-step quickness and that will let him make plays in the opposing backfield. Most importantly, I very much want to see him pressure the quarterback from the inside to wreak havoc on the opposing passing game.
If he can do those things, he’ll be an extremely early pick in the 2018 NFL draft. He will have company though as Michigan’s Maurice Hurst is undersized but his first step is rare. Da’Ron Payne from Alabama, Terry Beckner from Missouri and Vita Vea from Washington will challenge him though (and there will be others), and he’ll have to play at a high level this season.
Understand though, at this point we are basing this all on a projection that he’ll be able to accomplish the things we want to see while playing inside (like he did as a freshman) as opposed to playing defensive end like he did as a sophomore. I’m banking on him playing inside and I’m projecting that he’ll have an outstanding season playing in the ACC as a defensive tackle.
This report is long because Wilkins’ situation is fairly unique and by no means a simple evaluation. Now having said all that, the only thing that remains is what kind of season he has in 2017. He can prove a lot of things and it’s all in his hands. I am very excited to see how his situation unfolds.